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June 21, 2009

David and Goliath

Last month there was an article in the New Yorker Magazine called, “How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules,” by Malcolm Gladwell. (May 11,2009)


He tells the story of an immigrant from Mumbai by the name of Vivek Ranadive. Vivek decided to coach his 12 year old daughter’s basketball team. He had a bunch of little girls who really weren’t too interested in basketball and they were short. Not a winning formula. And he was also confused about the game.


“Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press…But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time.”


Vivek felt this method of play widened the gap between good teams and bad teams by just letting the good teams do what they did well. So he decided his team would play a full-court press all the time. They had to run more, they had to be more fit, they surprised the other teams with this strategy and in the end they ended up at the national championships.


David and Goliath is one of the most popular stories in the Bible. Folks know it because it has served for generations as testimony that the underdog can in fact overcome the giant. It is held up as a rare and miraculous occurrence. But was it?


A political scientist recently studied how often the underdog actually wins. He looked at every war fought in the past 200 years between one weak and one strong opponent. In conflicts where one side was ten times more powerful than the other, the underdog won almost one third of the time. The scientist wondered what would happen if the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? Like a full court press? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went to almost 64%. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.


When David decided to battle Goliath, Saul insisted David wear his armor for protection. No one would fight this giant unprotected. But David found the armor too big, awkward, and unmanageable for his personal style so he went without. He simply took his slingshot and five smooth stones.


48When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 49David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.


We remember David for the slingshot part of the story. But the first part of that verse is important too. David ran quickly, he sped up, he broke the rhythm.


“The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.” Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.


Most of us don’t encounter real giant in our lives. But there are those mental mountains that get in our way, those emotional ogres that fight us, those giants in our hearts and minds. Maybe it is a person, or a situation, or a feeling. Anger, grief, depression. Some giants are habits or addictions, some are temptations or problems. It is whatever we feel we cannot conquer, whatever makes us feel like an underdog, like a little David facing an enormous Goliath.


When we encounter our own giants we might consider David’s strategy.


First of all David used his own style. No armor, no military technique, just the same stuff he used as a shepherd. He did what he already knew and what he knew he could do well.


Then David called out the giant’s name. He gave a name to this enemy that stood in his path. Sometimes we never fully speak about the giants in our lives. Like in Harry Potter, nobody will speak Voldemort's name except Harry. And Harry is the only one who can defeat him. Psychologists tell us that only when we name something can we begin to get a handle on it.


David also had to get past all the naysayers. His brothers spoke to him as only older siblings can. They reminded him he was only there to deliver lunch and he should really go back home to Daddy. Saul questioned his ability, his preparation and his decision. We need people in our lives who will disagree with us and challenge us. But we don’t need those folks who are continually negative about us and about what we are capable of accomplishing.


David remembered his abilities and his strengths. "I killed lions. I protected my sheep. I've dealt with the bears. It's not quite like Goliath, but it's close enough to know that I can do it again." Close enough to know that we can do it again.


And most importantly, David remembered the power and ability of God. He counted on God to do what he could not do by himself. He said to Goliath, "You have come to me with a sword and with a spear and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied."


There is that trust issue again. Trusting ourselves and also trusting our God.


In the face of all the other things we trust in,

Our technology

Our strategy

Our armor

Our own abilities

Is God a part of everything we do?


The story of David and Goliath is not just about an underdog slaying a giant.

It is a story of God at work in the life of David.

This summer as we go through a number of stories about David and his life

We will see God’s presence, real and strong.

We will see God’s purpose being accomplished

And we will see God’s will being thwarted

But through it all we will see God’s presence.


We read these stories, not because David was exceptional or special

But because God was present in his life.

And we need to know that

Because God is present in our lives as well.





New Yorker article - “How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules,” by Malcolm Gladwell. (May 11,2009)


David and Goliath: Giant Slaying, a sermon by David A. Renwick at Second Presbyterian Church Lexington, KY. May 21, 2000.


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